The Love of Birds

by Rex Burress

The birds were back at Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge in December 2002. The marshes were packed with waterfowl, and countless thousands of ducks and geese were so numerous that a person with "bird phobia," as suggested by the Hitchcock movie, "The Birds," might be intimidated, especially when five hundred thousand snow geese come drifting out of the sky to fill the air with a wing-beat chorus like angels descending on a Christmas Day.

Those geese, and ducks, have smooth, rounded beaks and are not disposed to peck you at all. In fact, it is difficult to get within binocular range. They have been shot at by man the menace, and as much as the birdwatcher would like for them to approach closely, the wild ones are inclined to be wild and avoid that cloth-clad creature who could be a gun-wielding madman. Canada Geese can bravely stand their ground at a nest site, however, and give quite a wallop with their wings, and occasional outlandish Brewer's Blackbirds have been known to smack your head when fledglings leave the nest.

As I was watching the fierce wildness of migratory waterfowl descending from the northern wilderness to cluster on the refuge, and as I admired those healthy bodies decorated with brightly toned feathers, I noticed a stirring in the shrubbery near the observation platform. It was a pair of Fox Sparrows searching for seedy subsistence at the base of a gnarled cottonwood. There was nothing flamboyant about their status - they were drab-colored birds feeding in drab leaves and duff.

Yet, in spite of the grandiose presence of the waterfowl-tide that overpowers your senses with splendor, the little male Fox Sparrow seemed to represent all the wonder, resourcefulness, well-groomed appearance, alertness, and living determination of the bird world. There was a love of life shown in that tiny hopper as it kick-scratched in the leaves, seemingly finding joy in the simple process of searching for food. It was aligned to its way of life - crouching in the thickets, stirring the earthy debris with tough feet, tilting an eye for danger, watching its mate - while surviving in an instinctive world that gave it freedom to thrive in its particular habitat. The male was outstandingly scrawled with that dark chest pattern, and it seemed so happy, functioning so healthily, digesting, defecating, and sharing the same atmosphere that I was breathing.

The Fox Sparrow appeared so appealingly soft and neat, as I watched it through the binoculars, that I wanted to touch it, and most of all, it was alive, a separate unit of life roaming free in a woodland environment, equipped with a sharp beak that enabled it to nose into the minute world of insect and seed close to the ground.

One has many unanswerable questions about how the 8600 species of birds developed on planet earth and how the Original Units evidently connected with other cellular forms to grow into separate beings. Some call it evolution ... I know that that individual Fox Sparrow was created by two other Fox Sparrows, male and female, and developed in an incubated egg to eventually hatch - even if I don't know how the first one arrived. I know it, like its ancestral linkage, was nourished and protected by the parents until it could break free and continue the cycle on its own.

So what was it about that mature Fox Sparrow that gave me joy merely to watch it move about and interconnect with that corner of the world? What leads me down to the marshes time and time again merely to view the waterfowl, or to Lake Merritt in Oakland to check on the goldeneyes? I think it has something to do with the fascination of seeing those small creatures forging a life out of the elements, and present an image of color, action, and shape that I conceive as beautiful. Are they capable of the concept of beauty? Do they recognize the specialness of sunsets and sunrises and the exquisite qualities of flowers? When one mentions that the essence of a wild animal is one of instinct without any real intelligence, we might think, as John Muir did when confronted with such a passage in Emerson: "How do we know this?"

Birds have attracted people through the ages, propelling individuals like John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson to pursue art as a means of interpretive expression, plus inspiring a multitude of ornithological scientists to spend lifetimes in bird study. But no less important in this wildlife circle of nature devotees are the thousands of people who simply watch birds for that indefinable joy of watching. I think of Richard Redmond who has been president of the Altacal Audubon Society at Chico, California, and his tremendous passion to pursue birds, whether in rainstorm or heat, that he has exerted through the years, an effort that has enabled him to identify a distant bird at a glance. I think of my wife Jo showing that love of bird life by keeping the feeders full in the backyard, particularly the new "sock" thistle seed holder that attracts goldfinch.

Then there is "The Accidental Bird Watcher," the title of an article written by Jim Auckley for the Missouri Conservationist magazine in December 2002. He said, "I have spent a lifetime admiring birds, sometimes from the windows of my home, and sometimes while fishing or hunting ... I'm not the kind of birdwatcher who keeps a list ... but pleasing are the birds I enjoy on a seasonal schedule while being in the out of doors. Watching one bird fluff his feathers against the cold of a winter day, then waggle his tail, made me think that even though I might not have any valuable art hanging in my house, I've got birds - living art - everywhere I look...."

That is the attitude and respect that will save the world from sinking into the dismal depths of terrorism and materialism. Watch a bird and be a force that wants to make the world a better place where we all can live.

2002 Rex Burress
December 12, 2002